Sermon: Ora et Labora

Ora et Labora
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
September 2, 2018

Psalm 90:16-17
Let your beautiful work be manifest to us your servants, and your glorious power to our children.
And let the loveliness of our Lord, our God, rest on us,
   confirming the work that we do.
Oh, yes. Affirm the work that we do!

Colossians 3:23-24
Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters, since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ.

Today (or rather tomorrow) we celebrate labor, work – and those who do it. Labor Day dates back to the 19th century, when labor organizers were advancing the idea that ordinary workers should be treated justly and safely on the job, that they should be fairly compensated for their work, and that limits should be placed on how much work any one laborer could be required to do without rest.

In other words, Labor Day began as a testament to how deeply the daily work we do is tied to our dignity as people – as children of God who each deserve access to meaningful work done in a respectful environment, as human beings made in the image of this God who began the world with labor – and rest from it.

Because although it might seem like these ideas were birthed alongside the Industrial Revolution, they are biblical – whole chunks of the book of Deuteronomy are concerned with revolutionary ideas about how workers should be treated and the limits imposed on how long or what kind of work they could do.

Despite how deeply ingrained in our faith tradition such ideas about work are, our relationship with work has become something else entirely. In some ways it consumes our lives, pulling at us on days off or during time with our families, following us home even though it sometimes feels like the least important part of our lives.

In other ways, though, work is hidden, dismissed, devalued. We dismiss stay-at-home parents, particularly moms, as “not working” and give little thought to the unpaid labor they do to keep our society running. We buy cheap clothing made by human beings laboring for a pittance in death-trap factories. We eat fruits and vegetables harvested by migrant workers who lack job security, access to education and healthcare, and protection from sexual assault – not to mention legal status. We patronize restaurants and fast food joints where women workers endure astronomical rates of harassment in order to earn the tips that bring their earnings up to minimum wage.

All these aspects of work are inconvenient, even painful to acknowledge; so we ignore them.

We are often dis-ordered in our relationship to work, giving it on the one hand too much importance and on the other, not nearly enough. I think the God who began the world with that balance of meaningful work and of rest must shake a divine head at how out of whack we’ve let things get.

I think there are two ways we might remedy this state of affairs.

The first is to restore dignity to all work – to see it.

The Psalmist names the way in which recognition of our work is a deep human longing, one we can help fulfill in each other: “And let the loveliness of our Lord, our God, rest on us, confirming the work that we do. Oh, yes. Affirm the work that we do!”

That might mean looking the person who cleans the bathrooms at the airport or the park in the eye and saying “thank you.” It might mean committing to buying clothing only from companies with fair labor practices. It might mean keeping up with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and their push for migrant workers’ rights – including the occasional boycott of national chains unwilling to pay a decent price for the produce they market us. It might mean rethinking the way you tip, remembering that the dishwashers in the back rely on the money they get from splitting earnings with the servers, even on days the server is in a bad mood and ticks off all the customers. It might mean taking pride in your own work, as humble as it might sometimes seem, and looking for the ways in which you can lift others up as you do it.

Which leads us to the second way we might remedy our distorted relationship with work: by remembering the Benedictines’ unofficial motto: Ora et labora, which is Latin for “Pray and work.” These words remind us that the two – though we so often separate them, using our day off to gather for prayer and worship! – are really complementary – that each makes the other more valuable.

I think here of Brother Lawrence, a Carmelite brother in 17th century Paris whose only two jobs during his entire life at the monastery were KP duty (as my dad would call it) and shoe repair – about the furthest thing you could get from lofty, laudable occupations. While he scoured pots and repaired soles, Brother Lawrence would pray, seeing every moment of manual labor as a means of coming into God’s presence. However humble to an onlooker, each load of dishes, each stack of sandals, represented for Brother Lawrence an opening to holiness – and a way to serve his fellow monks and brothers.

Brother Lawrence didn’t see his spiritual self as separate from his working self; his example is an invitation for us to do the same. Can we infuse our work with compassion, justice, cheerfulness, and purpose, knowing that “whatever our task,” if we “put []ourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for []our masters,” we will receive a reward from God – a measure of spiritual satisfaction?  

This brings to mind the father of my friend Jim. Jim’s dad was a West Virginia coal miner – dirty, thankless work consisting of long hours in cramped, unhealthy, often life-threatening conditions. He hated this work and, if life had presented him other options, he would surely have seized them. But coal mining fed his family, and he was going to make the best of it. So he did his work responsibly and well, but it wasn’t just that. When someone in the mine needed help, Jim’s dad was there with an outstretched hand. When a youngster joined the crew, Jim’s dad helped show him the ropes. When someone’s home life got bad and they needed a listening ear, Jim’s dad was there. When conditions were too unsafe to work or a higher up had made some unjust decision affecting the men, Jim’s dad spoke to management on behalf of his fellow miners. Eventually made a foreman, Jim’s dad was determined to be the kind of person God had called him to be, even in a job he would have given anything to leave behind.

The lesson I take from Jim’s dad is not to stay in an unsatisfying job if there are other options – and certainly not to stay in an abusive one. Rather, I take from his story and from Brother Lawrence’s that bringing God into our work, no matter what we do, allows us to look at it with the proper perspective: that work is not just about earning a living or passing the time, but about adding meaning to our lives and others’. How can we help a fellow human being? How can we make someone’s day easier or brighter? How can we shine a light on injustice or use our creativity to find a better path forward?  

When we’re able to see our work this way, it also reminds us that maybe answering that email we got in the middle of dinner isn’t any more valuable than being present to the person in front of us, or that maybe stressing out about a boss’ ineptitude long past working hours won’t solve anything.

There’s one more kind of work I want to talk about today, and it’s the work we do here at church. Did you know that liturgy, the name for the prayers and rituals of worship, the rhythm of the service, literally means “the work of the people”? That’s because worship doesn’t happen without the people – all of us praying and singing and listening and being in silence together.

Some of the most important work we do in worship is what we did this morning – a baptism. Or rather, it’s the work we promise to do as the baptized embarks on their faith journey – in this case to love, support, and care for Hailey as she, and we, grow in faith together, figuring out together what it means to follow Jesus. When she, bright-eyed, shares a story with us; when she struggles with the death of a pet or celebrates a new achievement; when she is wondering how to be a good friend or has questions about God or is trying to make a big decision – it will be our work to pay attention; to sorrow and joy with her; to offer up our experiences of God, to wonder and ask questions alongside her, to pray for her.

Way back in the 1890s, when Labor Day was first officially recognized, someone proposed a “Labor Sunday,” to be held the day before Labor Day as a celebration of the spiritual aspects of work. The idea never caught on; but I’m glad we have a chance to celebrate it today. Because work devoid of dignity, of spiritual meaning, of a broader perspective on what’s important and how we might lift one another up through it is surely dead.

So let us give thanks that we worship a God who affirms the value of all work, and who, through Christ, gives us a way to affirm each other – through our own work, through the way we support others’ work, and through the most precious work we do here, together. Amen.